This post is part of the series introduced here, summarising some of the arguments in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
The series presupposes that people who call themselves Christians ought at least to think Christ was broadly right in what he taught and believed. This post draws on up to date research about Jesus and how his views compare with the values of governments today.
The one thing historians are most sure about him is that he was crucified by the Roman Government. Crucifixion was their most cruel and public method of killing, only used for political threats.
1600 years later secularists reinvented Christianity as nothing to do with politics, and this reinvention remains popular in some churches today. However, no account of Jesus is credible unless it explains why the Romans saw fit to crucify him.
What we know about him
Researchers have studied the question closely over the last 40 years. Popular scholars are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Tom Wright.
Jesus was a Jew living in the ancient Roman Empire. Roman culture was very different from Jewish culture. The clash between them produced a string of demonstrations, riots and rebellions against Roman rule. Jesus was a non-violent protestor. An example is here.
Jews had their own laws. They are still in the Bible. Many of them are an ancient society’s version of a welfare state, designed to make sure everybody had somewhere to live and enough to eat. Compared with other laws of that time and place, they set limits to slavery and debt. Jews believed the world had been created by a god for whom everybody matters. God had created enough food for everyone. For somebody to starve because they had no food was contrary to God’s intentions.
The Romans had no time for that. Maintaining the Empire meant imposing high taxes. Contrary to the Jewish laws, people who couldn’t pay had to sell their land in perpetuity. If they still couldn’t pay they had to sell themselves and their children into slavery. Never mind: provided the taxes got paid, it didn’t matter how many people died. Human life was cheap.
The situation today
This culture clash has echoed through the centuries. On one side are the people who think like the Romans. For them, a successful government will be powerful and rich. The rest of us are to be judged by how well we contribute to the nation’s wealth and power. As for those who don’t contribute, or are a drain on it, we’d be better off without them.
Commentators on elections often puzzle over the fact that large numbers of people vote against their own material interests. Today, as in ancient Rome, many people take so much pleasure in idolising the rich and famous that the flaunted wealth of their idols distracts from their own poverty.
On the other side are those who think like Jesus. A successful government will make sure every person has the necessities of life and can contribute to society. Everybody matters. Whether we are a civilised society is to be judged not by the nation’s wealth but by how we treat the poorest and most marginalised.
Living conditions in Britain today are nowhere near as bad as Judea in the Roman Empire. But economists recognise that it has been heading in this direction for 40 years, with ever-increasing inequalities of wealth and power.
Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century argues that the trend is normal. What reversed it from 1914 to the 1970s was war. War motivated people to care for each other, while also reducing inequality by destroying a lot of excess wealth. Since the 1970s inequalities of wealth and power have once again been increasing. The rate has accelerated since 2010.
The change has been reflected in public values – not just the speeches of politicians, but the attitudes expressed in television programmes and newspapers. A few years ago we were proud of our parents and grandparents for doing what they did in the 1930s when they welcomed refugees; now we are encouraged to hate foreigners and we vote for politicians who want to keep them out. A few years ago we were proud to have a welfare state making sure that a minimum standard of living was available to all; now we are encouraged to treat the unemployed as though they deserve to starve.
We have elected politicians to represent this mood of defensive hatred. These changes are far more important to the state of the nation than Brexit, and are absolutely nothing to do with the European Union. They are the product of British Government policies.
Britain is far from being the only one. In moving in this direction, it is doing the same as most western countries, albeit more enthusiastically than most. Still, what is happening in Britain is still the responsibility of the British Government.